Friday, February 24, 2017

my three crazies

Wednesday, February 15: I'm standing on the subway platform, minding my own business. Right as the train pulls up, I'm accosted by an overly friendly Korean man with a shoulder bag. "Oh, hi!" he says brightly, as if he knows me. I smile tightly and nod politely, then I board the train. He's at my side, so he boards, too. I've known this guy for thirty seconds, and I'm already thinking the same thought I always think in situations like this: why am I such an asshole attractor? My life is full of unwanted people whom I'd gladly shoot. With this chump's appearance, we can add another face to my list.

"Where are you from?" the man asks with a heavy accent that betrays a shaky mastery of English. I was an English teacher in Korea for years, so I can peg someone's proficiency level after hearing just a few syllables.

"America," I say curtly. The man shakes his head mournfully.

"Oh, I'm so sorry," he says with affected sadness.

I have no idea what the fuck he means, but I don't like this reaction at all, so I switch to Korean and say, "That's a rude way to talk. I say I'm from America, and you think that's too bad?" The man now realizes he's talking to someone who speaks Korean.

"No, that's not what I meant—" blah, blah, blah. He's all apologies. I look away. I've been done with this 1.7-meter ambulatory anus since he first sidled up to me on the subway platform. Despite my looking away, he doesn't take the hint. Naturally. It's going to be that kind of day.

Instead of leaving me alone, he reaches into his shoulder bag and pulls out some brochures, which he then rudely puts in front of my averted face. "I'm a salesman," he says, smiling manically, still trying to ply me in English. "See? We sell products all over the world." I nod distantly, thinking about what it'd feel like to hurl this man bodily through a window. He's still holding the brochures out, expecting me to take them. I don't. Instead, I hold up my hand.

"Please, take!" he says lamely. I shake my head, then return to staring at nothing. We reach my stop, and unfortunately, it's this guy's stop, too. You can always be sure that, when you meet an asshole, he won't part ways easily. Luckily for me, he moves to the exit door first, and I deliberately line up a few feet behind him, placing a person or two between me and him. When the door opens, my harasser runs at full tilt over to the subway station's escalator, off to bother someone else, or maybe just to put our encounter behind him. I follow slowly, marveling at what must be the world's most retarded salesman.

Friday, February 17: I'm in the subway again. One stop away from my destination, I suddenly hear it: the sounds of a guy chirping, beeping, and clicking loudly, putting on his own audio show. I'm pretty sure this is the same guy I encountered months before: a crazy-but-harmless twentysomething off in his own world, but apparently rational enough to use a T-Money farecard to get through the turnstile and board a subway. Interspersed in all the clicking, beeping, and sound effects are bits of dialogue uttered in a tinny, muffled way, as if the words were from some kind of radio broadcast being heard through bad speakers. "Gyotong sago," I hear several times: traffic accident.

The doors open when I reach my stop, Daechi Station. Unsurprisingly, the guy gets off the train with me, and we both head up the escalator. I'm standing on the right, per the unspoken social agreement that, if you're not actively walking up the escalator's steps, you're to stand on the right and leave room for walkers to pass you on the left. Crazy Boy is standing on the left, beeping and clicking and "Gyotong sago"ing away, possibly blocking upward-moving traffic. Since I'm pretty sure this is the same guy I had met months ago, I don't give a damn because I know he's harmless. He's not one of those crazies who yell loony things at all passersby, then incorporate you into their deranged narratives the moment you're in front of them. When I reach the top of the escalator, I break right and Crazy Boy breaks left. The end.

Thursday, February 23: I've just finished shopping at Haddon Supermarket—a place that seems to be dying fast. The store's hours, according to expats a few years ago, extended all the way to 9:00PM, but last year, I was told the store was open until 7PM every day of the week (this turned out not to be true). On this day, I notice a sign at the cash register saying that Haddon's hours are now 8:30AM to only 6PM, with Wednesdays being a day off. How sad, I think as I leave. The end is coming swiftly for Haddon, which probably doesn't market itself all that well, and which suffers from a slightly weird location that isn't visible from the main street. It also doesn't help that Haddon's shelves are looking barer and barer; the place is rapidly turning into Venezuela.

That said, I'm still able to find a few overpriced items that I need for my moqueca; I walk out with my bagful of goodies and hail a cab. I say my usual "thank you" as I get in, and the driver barks, "You gonna pay by card? 'Cause the card reader's broken!" I say—without first looking into my wallet—that I can pay with cash or with T-Money. The driver nods stiffly—he's an ancient fucker, as skinny and dried-up as beef jerky—and it isn't until we've rolled forward three hundred meters that he asks me where I'm headed. I say, "Daecheong Station," to which he replies with a "Huh?" that I've heard from other cabbies before.

Here's the thing: most cabbies know all of Seoul, and I respect them for their encyclopedic knowledge. At the same time, there are some areas of Seoul that fall into a cabbie's cognitive blind spot, and my neighborhood is one of them. Name any location close to where I live—Suseo, Irweon, Daechi, Jamshil, Samseong—and cabbies will know exactly what place you're talking about. But mention "Daecheong Station" to them, and some cabbies will go as blank as the blind spot in their minds.

"It's near Suseo and Irweon," I explain patiently but loudly, as it's obvious my driver is a little hard of hearing. "If you drive toward Suseo, you're good." The cabbie nods and says, "Yeah, I know Daecheong—if you drive past it, you'll get to Suseo." This scares me, as it sounds as though the driver has latched onto the name "Suseo" and thinks that that's our destination.

"Just to make sure," I say politely, "I'm going to Daecheong, not Suseo." The cabbie laughs and nods, trying to reassure me that he still has all his marbles. (The average age of a Seoul cabbie is 60. Cabbies are, alas, a dying breed. I wonder what will arise to replace them.)

The ride actually goes without a hitch, unlike that earlier ride in which the old guy got us lost and cost me an extra five or six dollars. My current cabbie knows his routes, and he takes me unerringly to Daecheong Station, where my apartment building is.

But it's the shit he says during the ride that sticks with me. I'm not sure I can even cover the blizzard of topics the cabbie throws at me, but they all have the following common theme: Korea is going down the toilet, and young people today are stupid assholes who only worry about making money instead of living lives of value. I don't think the cabbie is totally wrong, but I have little reason to side fully with him when he starts praising the Japanese ("They have a lot to teach us! Their country is all neat and clean, but we Koreans throw garbage all over the place!"—and—"Japanese women know how to take care of their men! Korean women? Ha! They're selfish and won't do anything for you. But Japanese women are also ugly."), praising Park Geun-hye ("She hasn't done a single thing wrong!"), excoriating Kim Young-sam (whom I admire), and praising old dictators like Chun Doo-hwan ("There was no crime back then!"). He also talks about how, in his day, unruly students got the rod, but today's students are all whiny pussies (again, there's some truth to this). If the cabbie isn't calling his fellow citizens "gaesaekkideul" (sons of bitches), he's calling them fucking retarded. The entire ride, once the cabbie gets going, is a long, swear-word-laced diatribe against the entire country. At one point, he stops ranting and asks me, more calmly, about my own experience living in Korea. I laughingly tell him that, from where I sit, there are indeed assholes (ssagaji eopneun nomdeul is the sweary term I use... it translates differently depending on context), but there are also plenty of good people. "Which are there more of?" he barks challengingly. "Good people or assholes?" As a way to deflect him, I say, "Well, for me, it depends on the day," which is true enough. The cabbie laughs. I think about how I could be a politician.

The cabbie's brand of crazy isn't the same as that of the "salesman" described above. True, I'm a captive audience for the cabbie, who's got plenty of spleen to vent, but at the same time, I can see he's basically a good, friendly guy who, like a lot of old folks, simply wants to talk. Most of my responses to the cabbie are grunts, "Mmm"s, and silent nods. I'm in no mood to challenge his worldview, and I don't have the Korean skills, besides. When the ride ends, I don't have enough cash to pay the full fare: it's W15,700, but I've got W15,600 in my wallet. "No problem! I'll give you a discount!" barks the cabbie. We say our goodbyes, and an instant later, I'm walking into my apartment building, shaking my head.

Depending on how you count the inhabitants and reckon the municipal borders, Seoul has from 10 million to 12 million people. Population density is high here; you can't expect much privacy or solitude (these are not the same things). With so many people, statistically speaking, the likelihood that you're going to run into some colorful personalities is very high. But these past nine or so days have been a little nuttier than what I'm used to. Part of me wants to be thankful that I'm exposed to such variety, but part of me just wants to crawl into bed and block out the world with a large pillow over my head.


John Mac said...

Loved this post! Classic Big Hominid style.

"Ambulatory anus" is my favorite take away from this diatribe.

And why the hell are you not walking up the escalator steps? You got a long ass walk in your near future!


Kevin Kim said...

I'm not walking up those steps because I'm a lazy bastard.